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Brian Cathcart

The Fly in the Cathedral

'Splitting the Atom' was a turning point in the progress of physics, and indeed of the world in general. The Fly in the Cathedral tells the story of the work leading up to the success of John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton in 1932.

Splitting the atom in fact refers to splitting the tiny atomic nucleus - the fly within the much bigger cathedral of the atom. In this mostly biographical book Brian Cathcart tells us about the life of not just Cockcroft and Walton, but also of the other scientists involved in the attempt to discover the secrets of the atomic nucleus, and in particular of Ernest Rutherford, who played a significant part in the discovery of the nucleus in 1909. Thus we hear about the rivalry between different research groups, the false starts, and the theory which suggested that an impractical ten million volts would be needed. But then it was seen that if protons were used as the bullets, just 300,000 volts might suffice. This still needed quite an effort to finance and build the equipment, but eventually led to success. Cathcart goes on to show how this was the end of one era and the beginning of a new one - that of Big Science. It's a fascinating book, written by a non-scientist, and so is well worth reading whether or not you have any previous knowledge of physics.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews